When I first discovered the Getting Things Done book by David Allen in 2010, I just thought it was a really cool system for getting organized. The book immediately appealed to my Type A, admittedly-nerdy sensibilities – and my affinity for really cool office supplies. But, about a year after implementing my own GTD program, a corporate restructuring led to increased responsibility at work and a fantastic new role for me as director of my department. Quick transitions meant that I had to meet very ambitious goals in a very short amount of time, including managing the planning and execution of a conference for 400 people in a matter of 10 weeks. My GTD system was a lifeline during that time. It didn’t make things easy, but it did help me to maintain the clarity and perspective that I needed to tackle these challenges with focused control (In other words, I wasn’t totally freaking out.) And, within a year, I had somehow managed to convince some influential people within my organization that, if these simple but powerful techniques could work so well for me, that sharing them with others in our organization would pay off big time. That’s when I became certified as a GTD Fundamentals trainer.
But, during this time, something else was happening outside of my professional life that I never would have imagined that GTD could support. My husband, the owner of a television production company, was diagnosed with a recurrence of cancer and would have to resume chemotherapy treatments that would keep him out of the out of commission for 4-5 days every two weeks. By then I had already pushed my GTD agenda on him and we were both amazed at how he was able to get more things done in the condensed schedule that his treatment regimen allowed. But, that wasn’t all. During those 4-5 days every two weeks, something magical happened. Brian would describe the times that he recovered from chemotherapy infusions as pockets of creativity where ideas flowed fast and freely. Thanks to the invention of the iPad, he created … and created … and created – musical scores in GarageBand, sketch art in Brushes, movie screenplays in Pages.
Fast forward two years to the summer / fall of 2013 – Despite his determined spirit and neverending zest for life, Brian’s disease progressed and, while we refused to believe that he wouldn’t pull through somehow, things became very scary. I became so paralyzed by fear that I could barely function at times. And, considering the fact that my company had just announced a merger that would cause my company to double in size within 5 months, it was not the time to lose control.
Then one day, I decided to focus my attention on what had my attention. I was determined to clarify and identify the precise things that had me so stuck regarding the possibility that my husband might not always be by my side. Aside from the obvious – the grief from the separation and the lack of his unique presence that was so incredibly precious – I was able to identify four things, my “scary things” that were at the root of my paralyzing fear. They were:
- The thought of having to plan memorial services in short notice.
- The thought of having to plan and execute the creative elements of my company’s annual leadership conference without him. (Working on this project was how we met – and we worked together on this event for 10 years.)
- The thought of having to create a succession plan for the company that he owned, or even worse, having to dissolve the company and dispose of its assets.
- The thought of returning to Walt Disney World without him. (It was our favorite vacation destination. We were engaged there, we were married there, and we returned there at least twice a year.)
Once I named these “scary things” and, specifically, once I wrote them down, they didn’t become any less scary, but they were no longer paralyzing. And taking the time to sweep my mind of my biggest fears made me feel like there weren’t any hidden threats lurking in the unknown – these were the big ones.
On September 14th, 2013, it became an undeniable reality that my darling Brian would not be able to recover. David Allen would undoubtedly describe this as “project creating, priority shifting information.” And, in a seemingly cruel paradox, the days, weeks and months that followed would require me to be present, mindful, and “on top of my game” at a time when all I wanted to do was sleep. I delegated everything that I possibly could, but these were projects for which I was ultimately responsible – and the stakes were very high.
When I set forth on my GTD journey, I never could have imagined a day that I would sit in a hospital room, open my OmniFocus program and create a project called “Ensure a Peaceful Transition for Brian” with sub-projects and actions like “Create a Network of Support for Gavin” (our son) and “Create a Communication Plan.” But, that’s exactly what I did on the morning of September 14th. When you live in the age of social media, and you have a business to run, things like creating an official Facebook announcement and locking down social media security settings become critical next actions. You don’t want Uncle Larry to learn of the news from a social post of a high school acquaintaince. I did a mind sweep. I processed and organized the information. I reviewed the system and did only those things that had to be done that day. I delegated everything that I could. And I spent the next several hours focusing all of my attention on sharing those precious moments with Brian. I held his hand, talked to him, and played our favorite songs until he made his peaceful transition.
Over the next few hours, days, weeks and months, more projects were created. More next actions were completed. And, eventually, every “scary thing” was approached.
We celebrated Brian’s life with lovely services and much fellowship. We executed a successful leadership conference that was bigger than ever after our completing our merger. We transitioned ownership of the business to Brian’s chosen successors. And, on the morning of September 14th, 2014, I faced my last “scary thing” with intention when I went to the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World and sent a Mickey Mouse balloon to him from Cinderella’s Castle. Later that day, some of my closest friends and family members joined me on the Disney Dream cruise ship for a continued celebration of Brian’s life.
This journey isn’t over . . . in fact, it’s just beginning. Grieving the loss of a loved one isn’t a project and can never be marked as “done.” But, for me, GTD has provided a framework for untangling the fear of the unknown into approachable, manageable actions. It has allowed me to move through the chaos as efficiently as possible and spend as much time as possible on the things that really matter at this time – healing, reflection, and developing self-awareness. I’ll always be grateful for the impact that GTD had on Brian’s final years as well. The creative expressions that Brian left us from his “pockets of time” are treasures to be cherished by all of us who knew him.
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